CSUB enters race discussion

Patricia Rocha

News Editor


In a recent Brown Bag discussion hosted by CSU Bakersfield President Horace Mitchell, Mitchell discussed the legacy of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as part of the celebration of Black History Month.

The discussion began with Mitchell describing King’s historical significance and his own personal history under King’s legacy.

After his lecture, Mitchell posed questions to the audience that sparked discussion about current social inequality issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, racial profiling, inequality in the criminal justice system, and ways a person can challenge what they feel to be unfair treatment in our society.

“Right here in Kern County, I discovered that we have more prisons per capita than I’ve seen anywhere else,” said Mitchell. “Men, particularly of color, are overrepresented in these penal situations. There are some statistics that indicate, for example, that there are more black males under the jurisdiction of courts or the criminal justice system than there are black men in college and some of that has to do with differential application of laws.”

According to a 2013 articled titled “Black Male Disproportionality in the Criminal Justice Systems of the USA, Canada, and England: a Comparative Analysis of Incarceration” by Bryan Warde of the “Journal of African American Studies,” black men make up only six percent of the population but make up “28 percent of all arrests and 40 percent of all men held in prison and jail in 2008.”

“Such has been the extent of the disproportionality over the last 30 years that without some abatement in these trends, one in three black males born in the USA today can expect to spend time in prison, compared to one in six Hispanic males and one in 17 white males,” Warde wrote.

Mitchell shared his own experiences as both a black man and a father, saying that because of these racial disparities, there are conversations that occur between parents of persons of color that may not occur in white families.

“When we lived in Irvine, which is in Orange County, the African American population was about 2 percent,” Mitchell began. “When my son started to drive, I was very clear with him. I said, ‘Always do the right thing, and if you get stopped for some reason, don’t even argue about it. If you start arguing that’s resisting arrest.’ I said, ‘Just do what you’re asked to do and if that is wrong, we will deal with that in a legal manner.’”

Mitchell said he would rather deal with legal issues than have his son shot over a miscommunication, which has been the case in a number of high-profile shootings regarding unarmed black men in the past few years.

“I’d rather deal with that from a legal approach separately,” Mitchell told his son, “Than to have somebody shoot you because they said, well, they didn’t know whether or not you had a gun or something like that.”

One solution Mitchell proposed was to make sure, as a community, that the “right kind of people” are put into law enforcement positions, people that “understand that this is a service role not simply a role where you have a license to beat people up.”

He emphasized this is not an issue of all police officers behaving this way, but “there are some that do,” who do not deserve their officer title.

This unequal policing of people of color inspired the Black Lives Matter movement, born when activists Patrice Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi created the social media hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in 2013, according to Russell Rickford in his 2016 “New Labor Forum” article “Black Lives Matter.” Their new social media-driven civil rights movement began “after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder in Florida of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin,” wrote Rickford. “The slogan’s deeper significance as the rallying cry for an incipient movement crystallized in 2014 during the Ferguson, Missouri uprisings against police brutality.”

Mitchell addressed the pushback to the movement, especially from those who reply with the argument, “all lives matter.”

“The whole idea of black lives matter was to say, in a way, black lives also matter,” Mitchell said. “It was understood that other lives matter. This was black lives also matter.”

After highlighting the progress of King’s civil rights work in the past, Mitchell posed the following questions to spark discussion:

“Are you doing what we need to be doing? Are we doing our part? What are some of the issues of our day that we need to be confronting? What might have been Dr. King’s approach?”

CSUB’s Director of Development Melissa Watkins quickly answered the last question.

“He would say, ‘Get out there are vote. Use your voice,’” said Watkins, reminding the audience that voting rights for people of color have only been around for 50 years, when the Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965.

Assistant Director of Campus Programming Emily Poole said it was important for everyone to address everyday issues of inequality even if those issues don’t pertain to our own race.

“Just because it’s not our problem, we have to question it, challenge it,” said Poole.

Spirit Squad Coordinator Arthur Smith agreed, saying it’s important to remember no one is perfect, but that shouldn’t stop someone from trying. He reminded the audience this was a quality of King as well.

“I think that that’s why there’s a legacy at all, because if everything that he did was perfect, you would just say, ‘OK, then that person was just blessed’…but you saw him get locked up, you saw him get beat,” said Smith. “…I feel I can make that change because it wasn’t easy for him either.”

Vocalizing and addressing inequality seemed to be the majority solution within the discussion.

“You also have to realize silence is submission,” said communications major and Campus Programming Assistant Lea Molina. “When you do realize that something is wrong or someone is being treated a certain way, I think what he (King) would want us to do is address that and don’t let anyone get by with things like that because the small things are what make the big picture. When someone says something that just doesn’t make sense to you or just isn’t right, I think it’s our job to say something about it.”

This willingness to discuss these race-based issues is a trait communications faculty member Elizabeth Jackson hopes to instill in the students who take her classes. As a standpoint theorist, Jackson teachers her courses with an emphasis on “disenfranchised individuals,” such as women, minorities, or those “ that we normally do not consider in our…academic discourse,” she said. She believes the more a person practices having these discussions, the easier it will be to have them when confronted by opposing viewpoints later on.

“My philosophy is that you have to teach the skill set, and teaching the skill set means that you don’t turn a blind eye, you actively engage,” said Jackson.

In her 30 years of teaching, 27 of those at CSUB, she has seen the impact of her work on students who would otherwise shy away from any sort of confrontation.

“Students understand and also anticipate, and sometimes look forward to, those discussions,” said Jackson. “They understand that this is the place to do it. If not now, when? If not here, in a safe protected environment in a university, where?”

According to the College Portrait of Undergraduate Education website, professors of color make up only 32 percent of CSUB’s faculty.

She believes the campus could be more of a diverse, culturally aware place if more emphasis was placed on these subjects in more than just her communications classes.

“I think that if students were more aware of the issues, and if faculty members were more willing to embrace the issues of the day, rather than exhibit a politeness protocol around what should be very potentially stimulating classroom discussions, students would… be more aware of what the topics are and perhaps willing to be more proactive…Nothing happens without awareness, without discussion, without discourse.”

She emphasized that these discussions are not easy, but only good can come from sharing ideas, even about uncomfortable topics surrounding racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia.

“If folks are uncomfortable dealing with so-called uncomfortable topics, how do you think people who are homeless feel?…that they don’t have enough food in their stomachs, no blanket, held up in a corner in the embryonic position trying to get warm somewhere? We have a lot of things in America we like to pretend, or we’d like to render invisible. Now people are saying, ‘Look at me, because I am not invisible.’”

With all of these issues at the forefront of news media, CSUB is now doing its part to inspire these conversations. The office of the president and division of student affairs collaborated to introduce the Multicultural Alliance and Gender Equity Resource Center, scheduled to debut in Fall of 2016 in the Rohan building of student housing, according to Assistant News Editor Javier Valdes of The Runner student newspaper in a February 2016 article titled “CSUB to open resource center.”

Though exact plans for the center are still in the discussion stages, it is set to be a resource for every student’s needs regarding sexual assault, civil rights, gender equality, and multiculturalism.

“There will be a space where students can come and exchange information, exchange conversation and see what commonalities they have and work on joint efforts on campus,” said Assistant to the President for Equity, Inclusion and Compliance Claudia Catota in the article. “Whether it’s to lead an initiative or focus on programming, identifying things that perhaps the university can do to support the student population.”